FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots continue to roll as they improved to 7-2 on the season with a 31-17 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium.
Bill Belichick’s team has now won six in a row, and the defense delivered its best performance of the season by holding Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers to 17 points and only 259 yards through the air.
As we’ve seen many times in New England over the years, the 1-2 start for the Patriots in September has completely evaporated over these last six weeks, and the players in the locker room aren’t surprised.
“I think just staying locked into what we want to do,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “We try to stay locked in, and in turn, we win a game and then another game. It’s about getting better each week, and I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
The Patriots offense went through some lulls without tight end Rob Gronkowski, running back Sony Michel, and starting right guard Shaq Mason, but a 14-point fourth quarter sealed the win.
Below, we’ll go over ten things we learned from another victory for the Patriots:
1. Patriots Pass Rush Steals the Spotlight in Brady vs. Rodgers Showdown
In a historic quarterback matchup, the Patriots defense, and the pass rush stole the show as they harassed Aaron Rodgers throughout the game with a coordinated and effective pass rush. The Patriots implemented a heavy dosage of pass rushing fronts that included, at times, four-man defensive lines on early downs with players that are typically utilized in pass rush situations rather than run-stopping scenarios. For example, the Pats opened the game with a four-man defensive line from left to right of Keionta Davis, Adam Butler, Trey Flowers, and Deatrich Wise. The Pats then rotated in pass rusher Adrian Clayborn and run stuffers Lawrence Guy, Malcom Brown, and Danny Shelton.
Speaking about the pass rush after the game head coach Bill Belichick said that, “hard work, preparation, and good technique” led to the success up front on Sunday night. The coach then added, “Playing with good technique in the games, being able to transfer it from the practice field and the meeting rooms into game situations…We’re better because we’ve worked harder we’ve improved, and we’ve gotten better.”
Let’s take a look at some of the film. One of the keys of the game for the Patriots was the defenses ability to disguise play calls by moving their safeties around the defense. By not setting their safeties pre-snap, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was either surprised by the call or had to adjust after the snap once the coverage declared.
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On this play in the first quarter, you see the Patriots line seven players up along the line of scrimmage. Devin McCourty shows blitz, then bails and then comes on the safety blitz right in the B-Gap getting a free run at Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots’ safeties played a chess match against Rodgers all night, and they won the battle against the Packers quarterback.
Although the Patriots’ disguises deserve a lot of the credit, the front four also played a significant role in getting after Rodgers in this one. Rodgers was only sacked once, but that number doesn’t do what we saw on Sunday night justice, and my film study tracking total pressures will tell the whole story.
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For now, here’s the lone sack of the game that came at a critical juncture in the fourth quarter. Patriots defensive end Trey Flowers lined up inside at a defensive tackle spot more than usual in a game plan specific wrinkle for the Pats, and it paid huge dividends as the Pats took advantage of the Green Bay guards in pass protection. Flowers and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who had a breakout game on Sunday night, run what the Patriots refer to as a “game” also known as a “stunt” on the right side. Flowers gets inside penetration and Clayborn loops around him to converge on Rodgers.
Here’s Flowers’ description of the sack from the post-game locker room: “we understood we could get some penetration up the middle, and I think he just came around on the ‘game’ and didn’t allow him [Rodgers] to step up.”
2. Patriots Man-to-Man Coverage Competitive Throughout
Although the Packers offense made some plays, the Patriots secondary was highly competitive throughout the game in a high-volume man coverage game for New England. The Pats trusted their corners on the perimeter to lock down the Packers receivers playing mostly in a single-high safety defense and using their safeties in the box in the pass rush and to key on the mobile Rodgers.
“I would say the biggest thing is just competing man,” said cornerback Jason McCourty. “Coming into this game, you know going against Aaron Rodgers as the quarterback it’s not going to come without us making plays in the secondary. It was up to us to compete on a consistent basis and make it tough for them.”
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick added, “Aaron [Rodgers] made a couple of throws there to [Marquez] Valdes-Scantling, I mean, I don’t know how the coverage could’ve been better than it was.”
The Patriots made it tough on Rodgers on the backend who very seldom had wide open receivers to throw to downfield and was often forced to fit balls into tight windows, and his receivers were forced to win contested catch battles.
One of those contested situations that went in the Patriots favor was a terrific pass breaking by cornerback Stephon Gilmore in the first quarter. Gilmore continues to play at an extremely high level, and his teammates are the first to tell you that, “one guy that doesn’t get enough love is Stephon Gilmore,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
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On the play, Gilmore is trailing Packers wide receiver, Davante Adams, as he’s forced to run through traffic to match Adams running a corner route out of the slot. Gilmore fights through multiple teammates, makes up the distance between him and Adams, and knocks the pass away to save a touchdown.
The Patriots defensive backs battled against one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a talented group of pass catchers all night long.
3. Tom Brady Had His Struggles Against Packers
There was a stretch of this game where Tom Brady’s performance began to worry me, and I’m never worried about anything when it comes to the Patriots. However, Brady pulled it together to lead two touchdown drives in the fourth quarter, and his final stat line didn’t look as bad as his play did at times in this one. Let’s take a look at two throws from Brady: one good and one bad.
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We’ll start with the good stuff. Although Brady’s downfield accuracy took a step back from absolute perfection during his MVP season a year ago, his processing speed and ability to go through a full-field progression is still on another level. Brady works his second read here and finds Phillip Dorsett for a critical third-down conversion along the sideline. This throw also shows that he still has plenty of arm strength to drive the ball downfield. Brady can’t step into the throw as the pocket collapses and still gets the ball to Dorsett 17 yards downfield.
Where Brady’s play has declined this season is with his downfield accuracy. Brady is missing open throws at a higher rate than any season of his I’ve charted (since 2014).
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(video credit: @ftbeard_17)
On this play, Brady had Chris Hogan wide open coming across the field and missed Hogan by as wide of a margin as you’ll ever see from the three-time MVP making this his worst miss of the season. It appeared that a series of blitzes that Green Bay sent his way, two resulting in sacks, got to Brady a bit by this point of the game.
Although there are some worrisome misses, Brady is still playing the position at a high level and is plenty good enough to lead this team. It just hasn’t been as clean as we’re accustomed to seeing.
4. Josh Gordon Shines on Sunday Night Football
The Patriots needed a massive performance from wide receiver Josh Gordon with Rob Gronkowski and Sony Michel out of the lineup on Sunday night, and that’s precisely what they got. Gordon’s ability to pick up the Patriots’ offense and build chemistry with Tom Brady in a short period has been remarkable, and against the Packers, he brought the big-play ability that the New England offense desperately needed.
Although the 55-yarder sealed the victory, and Gordon’s rapport with Tom Brady on slants is noteworthy; his 29-yard reception displayed the savviness, hands, and body control that have impressed me the most since Gordon arrive in Foxborough.
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On this play, Gordon does what’s often referred to as “slow-walking” to set himself up to high-point the ball along the sideline. Receivers use this technique to bait defensive backs into thinking the ball is arriving earlier than it does. In the last five yards of the route, you’ll see Gordon slow down and track the ball in the air. That forces Packers cornerback Bashaud Breeland to look back for the ball earlier than he needs to, making the reception easier for Gordon at the catch point. These kinds of nuances in his route running have been a pleasant surprise from Gordon since he arrived in New England.
5. Pats Get a Combined 171 Scrimmage Yards From James White and Cordarrelle Patterson
The story of the night on offense was a breakout performance for the running back version of Cordarrelle Patterson. Patterson averaged 5.5 yards per carry on the ground, and thanks to some terrific blocking up front, tallied three rushes of ten-plus yards. Patterson isn’t going to make players miss in the hole, but his straight-line speed makes him a dynamic threat with the ball in his hands on the perimeter.
As for his running mate, James White, the Pats receiving back continued his stellar 2018 season on Sunday night. White now leads all running backs with a career-high 61 receptions, 531 receiving yards, and is tied for the league lead in receiving touchdowns (six). White was the beneficiary of a great double-pass design by Josh McDaniels that we’ll get to later, but the player most of his teammates call “Mr. Reliable” has been the only constant on the Patriots offense outside of Tom Brady every week.
6. Patriots Fullback James Develin an Underappreciated Star
Patriots fullback James Develin is a fan favorite, but I don’t think that everyone fully realizes how valuable the lead blocker is to the Pats’ running game. Earlier this week, Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears called Develin the, “shining light that leads the way” for the ball carrier.
Adding to that was wide receiver turned running back Cordarrelle Patterson who said of Develin’s impact, “oh man, I tell James all the time when I’m in the game I hope you’re in the game because I want to run behind you. He’s crazy. He doesn’t care who’s blocking he’s going to try to run anybody over. As a running back, you need a guy like that.”
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On Patterson’s longest run of the game, Develin led the way on an outside toss. Left tackle Trent Brown does an excellent job to kick out the edge and center David Andrews reaches his block in the interior, but Develin springs Patterson by standing up the linebacker in the hole and kicking him outside to allow Patterson to run through for a 17-yard gain.
Not very many teams roster a fullback these days, but Develin is an old-school thumper that’s one of the very best at his position in the NFL.
7. Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels Dials Up Two Doozies
Some are quick to blame the play calling of offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels when the offense struggles, and there were some questionable calls from McDaniels in this game, especially on back-to-back pass plays that led to a turnover on downs on the goal line for the Pats. However, McDaniels’ genius was on full display in the fourth quarter when he pulled out two great play designs that led to big plays for the Pats.
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The first one was a double pass that the Patriots ran against the Jaguars in last year’s AFC Championship Game on the infamous Myles Jack fumble/no fumble play. What makes this play such a great one for the Pats is that there are so many different variations and threats. Edelman, a former college quarterback, can either run, throw downfield, or as he does here, throw across the formation to James White on the other side. As he sets to make the throw, you see tight end Dwayne Allen releasing downfield as a pass-catching option and Edelman looks his way to fake out the defense. Then he throws it back to White in the flat on the opposite side who has a convoy in front of him. This was also a great job by the offensive line to remain patient as they play developed so that they didn’t get called for an illegal man downfield penalty.
The second play call by McDaniels is another Patriots staple that’s my favorite design in the entire playbook, and it led to a 55-yard touchdown to Josh Gordon to ice the game.
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Here, the Pats run a dummy screen into the flat, and Brady pump fakes that way while the receiver acts like he’s going to get the ball. Both Edelman and Gordon then sneak behind the defensive backs on the line of scrimmage and Brady finds Gordon, who is his second option on the play, for the completion. The Patriots’ ability to sell the fake and pause just long enough so that they don’t give away the routes releasing downfield is what those hours of practice behind Gillette Stadium are all about.
8. Patriots Struggle At Times With Packers Tight End Jimmy Graham
This season, the Patriots have had their troubles covering tight ends. Coming into this one, the Pats had allowed 505 receiving yards to tight ends (10th-most) and were one of six teams to allow five receiving touchdowns to the position to lead the league. On Sunday night against Packers tight end Jimmy Graham, the Pats had some more up’s and down’s defending one of the game’s best receiving tight ends. However, they shut out the former Pro Bowler in the final 26 minutes of this one after a rough start, and even on Graham’s third-quarter touchdown, the tight end was forced to battle through coverage to haul in the pass.
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On Graham’s touchdown, safety Patrick Chung had the tight end in man coverage coming across the end zone on the over route. It looked liked safety Duron Harmon, who was responsible for the deep half of the field on that side, was bracketing wideout Davante Adams on the slant underneath, which put Chung on an island against Graham. Rodgers delivered a perfect strike to Graham who was able to win the jump ball. Although Chung allowed the touchdown, this was an excellent example of the Packers needing to be perfect both quarterback and receiver to beat the Pats coverage on Sunday night.
9. Patriots Interior Offensive Line Holds Its Own In Tough Matchup
Entering the game, the Packers seemed to have a matchup to exploit in the interior of the line of scrimmage when the Patriots had the ball. Packers defensive tackles Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels are two of the best in the game at that position, and the Pats were without starting right guard Shaq Mason. Although reserve guard Ted Karras allowed a sack early, the interior of the Pats offensive line steadied the ship and weren’t much of problem for the rest of the game. On that sack, Karras got beat cleanly by Daniels, but the New England coaching staff adjusted to role help Karras’ way when Daniels lined up over him. There were a few blitzes by Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine that got through the middle of the line in the third quarter that we’ll have to monitor in film study to see what went wrong, but this was a solid performance by the Patriots up front against an excellent pass rush.
10. Patriots Run Defense Allows 4.7 Yards Per Carry, But Was It By Design?
This is one thing that will also need some studying on the coaches tape this week, but the Patriots played the game, as noted earlier, in a lot of pass-heavy fronts. They expected the Packers and Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball and were willing to live with some of the yards they allowed on the ground if it meant taking it out of the other number 12’s hands. On initial viewing, it did appear that the Patriots missed some tackles in the run game and weren’t flowing sideline-to-sideline like they did last week against Buffalo, but that’s to be expected when you’re expecting pass even on early downs. Without that anticipation that we saw against the Bills, the Pats run defense gave up some easy yards against Green Bay.
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